Tag: harry reid

No Time to Debate Patriot

Back in February, Democratic leader Harry Reid promised fellow senator Rand Paul that—after years of kicking the can down the road—there would be at least a week reserved for full and open debate over three controversial provisions of the Patriot Act slated to expire this weekend, with an opportunity to propose reforms and offer amendments to any reauthorization bill.  And since, as we know, politicians always keep their promises, we can look forward to a robust and enlightening discussion of how to modify the Patriot Act to better safeguard civil liberties without sacrificing our counterterror capabilities.

Ha! No, I’m joking, of course. Having already cut the legs out from under his own party’s reformers by making a deal with GOP leaders for a four-year extension without reform, Reid used some clever procedural maneuvering to circumvent Rand Paul’s pledged obstruction, slipping the Patriot extension into an unrelated small-business bill that’s privileged against filibusters. All this just to prevent any debate on amendments—the most prominent of which, the Leahy-Paul amendment, is frankly so mild that it ought to be uncontroversial. (Among other things, it modifies some portions of the statute already found constitutionally defective by the courts, and codifies some recordkeeping and data use guidelines the Justice Department has already agreed to implement voluntarily.) Apparently it’s too much to even allow these proposals to be debated and voted on.

One reason may be that a growing number of senators—most recently Ron Wyden and Mark Udall—have been raising concerns about a classified “sensitive collection program” that makes use of the sunsetting “business records provision,” also known as Section 215.  They’ve joined Dick Durbin and (former Senator) Russ Feingold in hinting that there may be abuses linked to this program the public is unaware of, and that, moreover, the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has interpreted this provision (in a classified ruling, of course) in a way that the general public would find surprising, and which goes beyond the law’s apparent intent. Intelligence operations, of course, must remain secret, but this means we are now governed by a body of secret law, potentially at odds with citizens’ understanding of the public statute—with the result that we cannot even know the true reason that common sense reforms, once endorsed unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee, cannot be adopted. This is—to put it very mildly—not how a democracy is supposed to function. Equally troubling, there’s strong circumstantial evidence (which I’ll outline in a separate post) that the program in question may involve large-scale cell phone location tracking and data mining—a conclusion shared by several other analysts who’ve followed the issue closely.

The one silver lining here is that, while press may not have the patience for a complicated policy debate involving byzantine intelligence law—especially now that many Democrats have decided that powers which raised the specter of tyranny under George W. Bush are unobjectionable under an Obama administration—they are always happy to cover a legislative boxing match. Perhaps, thanks to Sen. Paul’s intransigence, we’ll finally see a little sunlight shed on these potent and secret surveillance powers.

Earmarks, Spending, and the Scope of the Federal Government

The Washington Post reported yesterday that Republican senators were turning their back on a massive spending bill stuffed full of their own earmarks. Those earmarks, the Post noted, included quite a few to benefit Mississippi, the home state of Senators Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran:

Wicker, along with Cochran, had by then already sponsored earmarks in the spending bill that would fund an airport expansion in Tunica ($1.75 million), new riverwalk lights in Columbus ($300,000), improvements to a hiking and biking trail in Hattiesburg ($700,000) and improvements to an assortment of bridges, highways, trails, railways and streets across Mississippi.

A burgeoning Tea Party revolt against earmarks caused the bill to be withdrawn. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid held a press conference to defend earmarks as the constitutional duty of the people’s elected representatives. (And, as many of our friends have emailed to tell us, held up a copy of the Cato pocket Constitution — 10 for $10 this Christmas season! — to make his point. Ah, well.)

But the real problem here is not earmarks. The underlying issue is not whether members of Congress or unelected bureaucrats spend the money that Congress appropriates for highways and the like. The real question is, why are local roads and bridges and hiking trails and riverwalk lights being paid for by taxpayers across the country?

If the people of Columbus, Mississippi, want new lights on their riverwalk, why are they asking the families of New Hampshire and Indiana and Oregon to pay for them? Shouldn’t they pay for their own lights, and let the people of Hattiesburg pay for their own hiking trails, and let the people of Oregon pay for any roads, bridges, or hiking trails that they value?

The fundamental problem is not earmarks. It is that the federal government is paying for clearly local and state responsibilities. Opponents of excessive spending should not stop at an earmark ban. They should insist that the federal government pay for national needs and leave state and local projects to the states and towns that want them.

Taxpayers Got a Big Christmas Present Yesterday, but It Wasn’t the Tax Bill

There’s a lot of attention being paid to yesterday’s landslide vote in the House to prevent a big tax increase next year. If you’re a glass-half-full optimist, you will be celebrating the good news for taxpayers. If you’re a glass-half-empty pessimist, you will be angry because the bill also contains provisions to increase the burden of government spending as well as some utterly corrupt tax loopholes added to the legislation so politicians could get campaign cash from special interest groups.

If you want some unambiguously good news, however, ignore the tax deal and celebrate the fact that Senator Harry Reid had to give up his attempt to enact a pork-filled, $1 trillion-plus spending bill. This “omnibus appropriation” not only had an enormous price tag, it also contained about 6,500 earmarks. As I explained in the New York Post yesterday, earmarks are “special provisions inserted on behalf of lobbyists to benefit special interests. The lobbyists get big fees, the interest groups get handouts and the politicians get rewarded with contributions from both. It’s a win-win-win for everyone — except the taxpayers who finance this carousel of corruption.”

This sleazy process traditionally has enjoyed bipartisan support, and many Republican senators initially were planning to support the legislation notwithstanding the voter revolt last month. But the insiders in Washington underestimated voter anger at bloated and wasteful government. Thanks to talk radio, the Internet (including sites like this one), and a handful of honest lawmakers, Reid’s corrupt legislation suddenly became toxic.

The resulting protests convinced GOPers — even the big spenders from the Appropriations Committee — that they could no longer play the old game of swapping earmarks for campaign cash. This is a remarkable development and a huge victory for the Tea Party movement.

Here’s part of the Washington Post report on this cheerful development:

Senate Democrats on Thursday abandoned their efforts to approve a comprehensive funding bill for the federal government after Republicans rebelled against its $1.2 trillion cost and the inclusion of nearly 7,000 line-item projects for individual lawmakers.

…Instead, a slimmed-down resolution that would fund the government mostly at current levels will come before the Senate, and Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said it will pass by Saturday.

…The majority leader’s surrender on the spending bill marked a final rebuke for this Congress to the old-school system of funding the government, in which the barons of the Appropriations Committee decided which states would receive tens of millions of dollars each year.

…Almost every Senate Republican had some favor in the bill, but as voter angst about runaway deficits grew before the midterm elections, Republicans turned against the earmark practice.

This is a very positive development heading into next year, but it is not a permanent victory. Some Republicans are true believers in the cause of limited government, but there are still plenty of corrupt big spenders as well as some Bush-style “compassionate conservatives” who think buying votes with other people’s money somehow makes one a caring person.

In other words, fiscal conservatives, libertarians, and Tea Partiers have won an important battle, but this is just one skirmish in a long war. If we want to save America from becoming another Greece, we better make sure that we redouble our efforts next year. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

‘New Food Safety Bill Could Make Things Worse’

That’s not just my view; that’s the view of writer Barry Estabrook, an ardent critic of the food industry (“Politics of the Plate”), writing at The Atlantic. You needn’t go along completely with Estabrook’s dim view of industrialized agriculture to realize he’s right in one of his central contentions: “the proposed rules would disproportionately impose costs upon” small producers, including traditional, low-tech and organic farmers and foodmakers selling to neighbors and local markets. Even those with flawless safety records or selling low-risk types of foodstuff could be capsized by new paperwork and regulatory burdens that larger operations will be able to absorb as a cost of doing business. (Earlier here and here.)

Things could reach a showdown any day now. The food safety bill had stalled in the Senate under criticism from small farmer advocates, as the New York Times acknowledged the other day in an absurdly slanted editorial that somehow got printed as a news article. Now Harry Reid is talking about forcing the bill through before the midterms. Significantly – as advocates of the bill trumpet – large foodmakers and agribusiness concerns have signed off on the bill as acceptable to them. Well, yes, they would, wouldn’t they?

I was on TV the other week (Hearst news service) trying to make a few of these points. I borrowed my closing line from an excellent Steve Chapman column, which I was unable to credit on air, but can credit here.

Live from the Fancy Farm Picnic

I went back home to Kentucky to attend the Fancy Farm Picnic last Saturday. It may be the biggest political event in the state; it takes place every August, 10 miles from where I grew up, and somehow I’d never attended before. It was time. I got there just in time to hear Senate candidates Jack Conway and Rand Paul give their 7-minute speeches. (There are lots of speakers, and timekeepers are strict.) There were plenty of advocates for both candidates among the 2000 or so people watching. It’s an old Democratic area, but they’re conservative Democrats who now mostly vote Republican in federal races.

It was well over 90 degrees and humid, so both candidates handed out fans:

As I listened to the candidates, my main impression was this: Conway accused Rand Paul of being an extremist, and Paul accused Conway of being a Democrat. The question for November is which charge will stick.

Gov. Steve Beshear, introducing Conway, warmed up the attack: “[Paul] is going to balance the federal budget on the backs of our school children. He’s going to balance the federal budget on the backs of our coal miners. On the backs of our farmers. On the backs of our law enforcement officials,” he shouted. “The entire commonwealth of Kentucky — Republicans, Democrats and independents — ought to be scared to death about Rand Paul!” Referring to last year’s controversy over Conway’s calling himself a “tough son of a bitch” – it’s a church picnic, after all – and the “seven words you can’t say on television,” Paul said, “There are six more words you won’t hear Jack Conway say [on the campaign trail]: President Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.”

So which do Kentucky voters dislike more: the national Democratic party’s big-government agenda or the prospect that Rand Paul might actually try to cut the size of government? In a world where everyone gets something from government, it’s not obvious. But so far Paul is holding on to a lead in the polls. In Fancy Farm, I noticed that all the Conway supporters had the campaign’s official signs and buttons, plus hand-lettered signs that had clearly been produced in campaign offices, such as this “NeanderPaul” sign that I picked up after the shouting was over:

Paul’s supporters, on the other hand, brought a lot of their own homemade signs. Conway’s supporters were more disciplined. You didn’t see any Conway supporters showing up dressed as Abraham Lincoln or a colonial soldier (though news reports say there was a guy dressed as a “neanderthal” holding the above sign), or wearing T-shirts reading “Who is John Galt?” The greater grass-roots enthusiasm for Paul has both pluses and minuses. Clearly he’s appealing to stronger currents than mere partisan politics and generating more enthusiasm. But that means he’s more at risk of supporters doing things that might embarrass the campaign.

Both candidates accused the other of “flip-flopping.” Conway’s team erected a “Rand Paul’s Waffle House” in the familiar yellow-and-black design and claimed he was waffling and flip-flopping on a number of issues. (Are waffling and flip-flopping the same thing? Not really.) Paul’s campaign handed out flip-flops labeled “cap” and “trade” to draw attention to Conway’s alleged backing away from his previous support for the “cap and trade” energy legislation.

One thing you can say about the Fancy Farm Picnic, it’s the best $10 meal you’ll ever eat – Kentucky pork and mutton, fresh-picked tomatoes and corn, and homemade pies and cakes.

And one final thought: They estimate that 15,000 people attend the picnic but that only 2,000 listen to the political speeches, which is a good reminder of reality for us political junkies. And that estimate would seem to be confirmed by my reflection after the weekend that, except for the drive from Mayfield to Fancy Farm, I drove about 500 miles in Kentucky this weekend and I’m not sure I ever saw a campaign sign or bumper sticker. The election is still almost three months away, and politics just isn’t life for most people.

Senate Bill Sows Seeds of Next Financial Crisis

With Majority Leader Harry Reid’s announcement that Democrats have the 60 votes needed for final passage of the Dodd-Frank financial bill, we can take a moment and remember this as the moment Congress planted the seeds of the next financial crisis.

In choosing to ignore the actual causes of the financial crisis – loose monetary policy, Fannie/Freddie, and never-ending efforts to expand homeownership – and instead further expanding government guarantees behind financial risk-taking, Congress is eliminating whatever market discipline might have been left in the banking industry.  But we shouldn’t be surprised, since this administration and Congress have consistently chosen to ignore the real problems facing our country – unemployment, perverse government incentives for risk-taking, massive fiscal imbalances – and instead pursued an agenda of rewarding special interests and expanding government.

At least we’ll know what to call the next crisis: the Dodd-Frank Crash.

The Horror of It!

Today Politico Arena asks:

Will Reid be able to portray Angle as an extremist?

With an air of wonder, POLITICO reports this morning that Sharron Angle, facing Senate majority leader Harry Reid in the fall elections, “has previously made eyebrow-raising statements about withdrawing the U.S. from the United Nations, eliminating the departments of Energy and Education, and privatizing Social Security.” Eyebrow-raising? As in “who could stand for such things”?

Beyond the Beltway (and even in pockets within the Beltway), there actually are people who believe that American taxpayers should not be subsidizing the play things of such human-rights-respecting exemplars as Cuba, China, Russia, and their ilk, all of whom sit on the United Nations Human Rights Council. And for some reason, we actually did have both energy and education in this country before the Departments of Energy and Education were created, hard as it may be to believe, just as we had art, philosophy, and radio before the NEA, NEH, and NPR were created. And people retired, on their own savings, before the Social Security system was invented. Speaking of which, it might be useful to note that that Ponzi scheme is now operating in the red, six years earlier than expected. Now there’s a reason to raise one’s eyebrows.